NEW YORK (Jul. 16)
Jewish Democrats and Republicans alike are hoping that Ross Perot’s dramatic withdrawal from the presidential contest will boost the fortunes of their parties’ respective presidential candidates.
While each side claims that the Texas billionaire’s supporters will now flock to their party, another outcome seems at least as likely: that Perot’s backers will feel so betrayed that they will opt out of the campaign altogether.
The withdrawal clearly leaves Perot’s Jewish support up for grabs. Polls have shown that Democratic nominee Bill Clinton has a solid majority of Jewish votes, and he has worked assiduously in recent weeks to shore up that support. The same surveys, meanwhile, have shown most Jewish Republicans ready to defect to Perot in November.
The Jewish vote had been considered pivotal in a three-way contest, but in the newly configured two-way race, it may decline in importance.
But President Bush, who called Perot’s departure a “positive development,” is still widely expected to try hard in the next four months to win back the Jews he lost to Perot over his hard-line policy on Israeli loan guarantees and his perceived insensitivity to Jews.
‘SHARED VALUES’ WITH BUSH?
“As it gets closer to the election, Jewish voters will become more aware of the positive achievement of the Bush administration with respect to Israel,” said Cheryl Halpern, co-chairman of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group.
Halpern, who stressed she was speaking only for herself, expressed confidence that Perot supporters “will feel there are shared values between the Perot and Bush campaigns and feel comfortable moving over.”
But Tom Smerling, head of a dovish Jewish group called Project Nishma, said he doubted such a migration would take place, noting the bitter public feuding between Perot and Bush.
“The animosity had reached such a pitch, it is hard to imagine Perot supporters returning to the Bush fold,” he said.
Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown told reporters shortly after the Perot announcement Thursday that his pullout will be a boon to the Clinton ticket.
The latest poll prior to the Perot bombshell already showed Clinton numbers were climbing, up to 45 percent, compared to 28 percent for Bush and 20 percent for Perot.
Brown said Clinton should win the hearts of Perot supporters because they want change, and Clinton is the only credible agent of change.
“Americans want change desperately,” he said. “George Bush can’t be the candidate of change. He is the epitome of the status quo.”
The Democrats challenge, said Brown “is to motivate the (Perot) voters and inspire them to join our cause.”
Though Perot refused to endorse Clinton, he did claim in his announcement that the Democratic Party “has revitalized itself,” a vote of confidence that may ultimately translate into new Clinton supporters.
But it is not clear whether his followers, many of whom are deeply disappointed, share that view.
NO OUTLET FOR ALIENATION
Joe Wouk, self-styled West Coast Jewish liaison to the Perot campaign, said he felt betrayed.
“It’s a disaster for the country,” he said. “I really don’t know what to do next.”
Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he was worried about all of the alienation that had been channeled for the past few months into the Perot campaign.
“Now it doesn’t have an outlet,” he said, “and what I’m afraid of is that many of the declared Ross Perot voters, if they sit it out, will be a disservice to American democracy.”
There will be a feeling, he said, “that he’s just another politician who ‘betrayed’ us,” said Rudin.
“We’re not going to send his check back,” AJCommittee spokesman David Saltman added half-jokingly. Saltman was referring to the recent $100,000 contribution Perot made to the agency following an appearance last spring.
Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, expressed confidence that Perot’s absence would be a boon for the Democratic ticket.
“Both Perot and Clinton represent change, and the vast majority want change,” he said.
“My guess is that Bill Clinton will have the most overwhelming number of Jewish votes in history,” he added.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, believes the situation is very fluid now.
He said a “great antipathy” prevails among Jews supporting Bush because of Middle East policies that are perceived to tilt against Israel.
“While Ross Perot was in the race, some of that manifested itself in support for Perot. It will be interesting to see if that support now goes to Clinton,” he said.
BUSH WILL TRY TO RECOUP LOSSES
Saperstein said Bush will try to recoup his lost Jewish support in the coming month with an anticipated visit by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a new deal on loan guarantees.
“That gives Clinton a month before Rabin comes to try and (translate) that disappointment with Bush into support for him,” said Saperstein. If Clinton “doesn’t do that before the Rabin visit, Bush could capture a significant portion of that Perot support.”
Jews have responded far less than other Americans to Perot’s appeal as an outsider who dismissed the system as completely unworkable.
They have said Jews and other minorities must rely on the system, however flawed, for security and for safeguards from the tyranny of the majority.
And they have expressed mistrust of Perot’s reputedly autocratic style and personality, and his seeming naivete about ethnic minorities.
Perot’s announcement therefore triggered some expressions of relief in the Jewish community.
“It’s good for the Jews,” said Michael Lerner, publisher of the left-wing intellectual journal Tikkun and a Clinton supporter. Despite the Texas billionaire’s appeal to people with “legitimate dissatisfaction with America, Perot embodied a potentially fascistic mentality,” Lerner said.
“He wants everything his way, or he doesn’t want it at all,” said Lerner. “He can’t deal with gray, with anything that isn’t black or white.”
For those who are dissatisfied, said Lerner, “there’s no place to go now. They’ll have to line up behind Clinton. He’s the one hope of getting Bush out of office.”
Perot’s decision shows this is a two-party country, said Rudin of AJCommittee, “which gives it great stability and continuity.”
(JTA staff writer Larry Yudelson contributed to this report.)